Our Broken Senate(s), Part II: The Union’s Catch-22

I wrote this during the summer. Never got around to posting it. Here’s part I.

Are critiques of the Student Union logically incoherent?

I’ve been reading this great article by George Packer, which really explores the dysfunction of the United States Senate. Read it!

Anyways, at first I thought there was a real parallel between the issues he raised and the current Student Union Senate. The more I think about it, though, the Union itself has many of the challenges of the US Senate – and some key differences.

A big problem in the narrative of the Senate is found in how it fails to pass legislation that deals with our challenges. Packer writes about anonymous holds, the requirement of unanimous consent, a 3-day-a-week schedule, and other factors as key determinants in the hobbling of the Senate. Yet, the Union doesn’t have these problems. Our stringent clean-elections law completely bans money in politics. The union executive has none of these external factors slowing it down (the Union Senate similarly doesn’t have filibusters, holds, or requirements for unanimous consent, and it famously is capable of meeting until late in the evening).

More subtle problems, however, are found in both. In the modern Senate, Packer finds, individual Senators have their own power bases and electoral machinery and are less likely to need the party – or the Senate itself. On the other hand, they’re so busy that they frequently follow the advice of aides or leadership regarding votes – and often don’t know why they’re voting for a particular bill or what it does. Senators are off being individuals (raising money, talking to interest groups, plotting, etc), instead of making ties among one another, especially across party lines. The rules for the Senate are so convoluted that mining the rulebook gives you a lot of power.

The Union, in comparison, is also full of individual actors that aren’t beholden to a party. The Union itself is filled with many different positions and people. They sometimes try to turn into a more cohesive unit – but the public always has an outcry about the clubbiness and elitism of the Union.

The Union is caught in a catch-22: Bonding invites charges of elitism, but a lack of bonding leads to argument and drama that could be avoided.

Packer tells the tale of how C-SPAN cameras cut through the closed atmosphere of the old Senate, getting rid of cozy deals but also encouraging Senators to read off prepared speeches on the Senate floor instead of speaking frankly. The cameras also lessened the need for Senators to hang around the Senate floor, because they could just waltz in whenever the cameras told them a vote was about to be taken.

I’m a big supporter of Union transparency. Still am. I fought for a mandatory open meeting for the E-Board once a week while I was on the Constitutional Review Committee – and I stand by that. Still, it’s good to take a step back sometimes and recognize that total transparency is both illusory (the hidden stuff just gets shifted during private time in to someone’s dorm instead of official meetings) and not necessarily a good thing. (Lawrence Lessig wrote an important essay back in 2009 that had a large influence on my thinking on the matter as well.)

So can we criticize the Union both for being too insider-y and for the drama and acrimony that results from their insider-y bonding? I think so, but we need to be more careful about it. Just as transparency doesn’t always have a good or bad outcome, neither do unaccountable secret senate meetings and a shadowy E-Board. It takes good people making good decisions to bring about good outcomes, not just helpful structures.


One thought on “Our Broken Senate(s), Part II: The Union’s Catch-22”

  1. The problem with the union is that nobody is beholden to anyone. Senators are never really held accountable for not accomplishing anything, and nobody knows which senator has worked for or against things they like. The union as a whole is pretty powerless, but they could certainly accomplish more or better things given the power they do have.

    I actually think there should be more senators. Two per class is far too few to actually listen to their constituents, and the numbers per residence quad aren’t much better. Anyone who has ever been in a class bigger than twenty knows that at a certain size, the dynamics of the class change and student participation becomes far less common and important. I think we’re seeing a lot of apathy towards the process (look at the voting totals for an *online election* which takes two minutes) because students look at the union as another thing at Brandeis where their opinions don’t matter.

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